A Theology of Plagiarism (& Other Professional Sins)

Mark Beuving —  September 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

WritingIn honor of the launch of our Fall semester, I’m going to explore an interesting phenomenon: plagiarism. Few will be surprised to learn the truth. Christian students plagiarize, whether they attend public or private colleges, secular or Christian universities.

I find the psychology behind the urge to cheat fascinating, but I also want to bring a theological perspective to bear. And keep in mind that what I will say about plagiarism here finds its expression in many forms of cheating and corner-cutting in many professions.

Why would a Christian student, genuinely committed to Christian standards of morality, steal intellectual property from another source, cheat on an exam, or lie about the amount of reading he or she has done for a course? I believe the answer is nearly always the same: justification.

Even the most committed Christian need only look to the Noble End to overshadow the Sketchy Means of getting there. So we justify some shady tactics (we intentionally avoid thinking about the shadiness) in order to gain a position where we’ll be able to provide for our families, impact the world, and give to our churches (of course, we would never spend any of that money on filling our own lives with things we don’t need).

I recently read a fascinating article in the Journal of Higher Education written by a guy who makes his living by charging students to write their papers and take their courses for them (yes, this includes ethics courses!). Perhaps the most startling aspect of the article was his casual remark that seminary students—those preparing to be pastors—were a great boost to his business.

Perhaps the assignment is unfair or unnecessary (“this is just busywork”). Maybe you could see how it would be helpful to most students, but you’ve already thought about this topic quite a bit, and you’re now busy with bigger and better things, so…

…so you’ll claim credit for something you didn’t write? You’ll copy the answers out of a book? Smuggle in a cheat sheet? “Refresh your memory” by peeking over another’s test-taking shoulder? Sell your birthright for a bowl of soup?

ScantronLet’s be honest here. You’re not really cheating on a test. You’re not really plagiarizing.

You’re selling your soul to gain a pathetically microscopic portion of the world. You’re trading your every ounce of your integrity for a slightly higher percentage on one assignment in one course in one degree program in one school.

Could it possibly be worth it? Does this question deserve an answer? And yet Christians cheat on tests and steal from sources on a regular basis. And yet Christians cut corners and engage in little lies in workplaces around the world.

Every student needs to ask himself: Why am I taking this class or pursuing this degree in the first place? Am I doing this to get a good job? If that were so, then perhaps “bending” the rules and “borrowing” some material is nothing more than an innovative way of outstripping the competition.  Your career is the important thing, so if you can enter your career competently and do a little less work in getting there, isn’t that just an example of “working smarter, not harder”?

But I don’t think the point of education is the job you’ll get or the career you’ll build. No, the point of education is becoming a certain type of person. Education is about improving yourself, and therefore the process is more important than the grade.

Make no mistake:

  • If you enter (and move all the way through) your education already knowing what you need to know, you’re a fool.
  • If you think education is about a diploma, you’re not likely to learn much in life.
  • If you’re more concerned about your career than the type of person you will be in that career, you do indeed have bigger things to worry about than studying for that test or carefully researching that paper.
  • If your paycheck or potential promotions mean more to you than the state of your soul, then you’re not going anywhere in life, regardless of your salary or title.

In writing this, of course, I’m a hypocrite speaking to hypocrites. But there’s never been a better time for the Christian community to recognize that “everyone else does it” is a great reason NOT to do it, that our souls matter more than our grades or careers, and that the only Source of evaluation and promotion that matters is the very One who said “You shall not steal.”

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Mark Beuving

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Mark has worked in youth, college, and worship ministry since 1999, and now serves at Eternity Bible College as the Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Simi Valley with his wife and two daughters.